Grown-Up Garage Bands
These middle-aged musicians aren’t going gentle into that good night. In fact, these artists are moonlighting by kickin’ up the local nightlife, and they have real day jobs, to boot.
One night last summer, The Bad Bad Ants were playing at a block party in the North Hills. For hours, these musicians rocked the crowd with a mix of Gen-X staples and their own original stuff. As they packed up after the gig, three young moms wandered over.
They hovered nearby for a moment, not quite sure how to approach three cute guys in a band. “You were awesome,” one said, as her friends smiled and giggled. In the awkward silence, another finally piped up, “So, do you guys have, like … day jobs?”
Little did she know that Pittsburgh’s suburban bar-band celebrities are just like the rest of us.
It’s easy to see musicians on stage and figure they sleep until noon after rocking all night.
Stand in a dimly lit bar and watch the Ants’ 43-year-old lead singer, Russ Sovek, peer out from behind dark glasses and a cowboy hat rasping the lyrics to “Blister in the Sun.” Odds are you wouldn’t guess he’s a business-development manager for Grejda Electric LLC and doting dad of three daughters. And you definitely wouldn’t guess that the Cranberry Township resident teaches Sunday school. But a telltale clue in the parking lot suggests these aren’t your stereotypical rockers: The Ants normally arrive in a minivan.
In America, there’s an assumption that if you’re 40 and in a band, you’re either a rock star, or you’re still living in your mom’s basement. But in Pittsburgh’s suburbs, a growing community of musicians has staked out a thriving middle ground. They’ve meshed the classic American dream of a good job, home and family with that other, edgier ambition of getting buddies together to start a band.
They’re on stage Saturday night, but come Sunday, you’ll probably find these guitar players and drummers out mowing the lawns of their suburban houses. They help their kids with homework and shuttle them to baseball practices. And when Monday morning arrives, they head to jobs as engineers, music teachers and dental hygienists, occasionally running into fans, who are surprised to see them out of context. From Cyndi Lauper to Metallica to old Celtic folk ballads, these bands play everything. And each group has a different strategy for balancing band life with domestic duties and other careers. But they all share one guiding principle: No matter how overloaded their schedules may be, Pittsburgh’s suburban “dad bands” somehow find the energy to keep rocking on.
Here are the stories of a few of these bands along with the members’ experiences.
Corned Beef and Curry: Bob Banerjee, fiddle and mandolin; John McCann, guitar and vocals; and Todd Hartman, percussion.
“Me and some guys from school had a band and we tried real hard. Jimmy quit; Jody got married—I shoulda known we’d never get far.” —Bryan Adams
After a decade, Shawn Maudhuit, 40, has it down to a science. As the lead singer and manager of Ferris Bueller’s Revenge, he maps out the band’s heavy performance schedule up to one year in advance. Then, he posts it to an online calendar that’s accessed by all six members and the band’s photographer.
There’s no time to rehearse, as the band performs two or three times per month. When the band adds new songs to the lineup, everyone learns separately and shows up ready to play. Maudhuit, a West Deer Township resident, demands professionalism, and the group’s members agree it’s key to juggling this gig alongside everything else they do.
“Everyone shows up on time for a sound check. Everyone knows their stuff,” says Ferris drummer Gary Matassa, a 38-year-old who teaches music at Pianos N’ Stuff when he isn’t performing.
Supportive partners are also key. If you’re going to do this, says Matassa, “you need to marry somebody who likes their alone time.”
For the members of the Irish pub band Corned Beef and Curry, geography adds a challenge: Lead singer John McCann lives in Allison Park, fiddle and mandolin player Bob Banerjee in Upper St. Clair and percussionist Todd Hartman in Cranberry Township. They play at Irish bars across western Pennsylvania.
When one of the main members can’t make a gig, auxiliary members may step in. McCann, a full-time father of two teenage daughters, sometimes plays alone. And there’s definitely no time for rehearsal. “The only way I’m able to be in this band is that we don’t have practices,” says Hartman, who teaches and leads two bands at Ambridge Area High School and is married with two young daughters.
The Bad Bad Ants and the heavy-metal band Nebulous approach things differently: They play fewer shows but rehearse weekly.
On rehearsal nights, you’ll find the Ants in guitar player Rich Barton’s basement, practicing in a little room just beyond the washing machine and the air-hockey table. Barton’s wife, Julianne, cooks dinner for the band, and they eat alongside the Bartons’ three kids. The couple’s middle daughter, Anna, christened the group inadvertently while playing with uncooperative insects in the yard. “Bad, bad ants,” she said, and when the band formed a few years later, the name was already chosen.
These days, things are getting increasingly complicated: The Ants have added a new bass player and a female singer. And OptoTherm, a Sewickley thermal-imaging business Barton founded, is growing and demanding much of Barton’s time. Meanwhile, drummer Chris Leya, who’s an IT guy like Banerjee, is busy managing a new band: Skeeter John—a group that includes his two teenage sons as members.
For Nebulous, Saturday night is permanently reserved for rehearsals or for shows. Wives and girlfriends are allowed to attend rehearsals, but even that can get complicated—particularly with a profanity-laden playlist of metal songs. Bass player Danny Polliard’s girlfriend once arrived at a Saturday-night practice with her three daughters, and when the band’s lead singer saw the girls, he quickly announced, “Practice is now PG-13.”
Nebulous: Danny Polliard, bass; George Lubiw, guitar; Joe Walter, drums; Zack Snyder, vocals; and Craig Cavlovich, guitar.
“We learned more from a three-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school.” —Bruce Springsteen
“Here’s a song you might have heard before,” Sovek sometimes jokes before launching into John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses,” a song that pretty much everyone in the audience has definitely heard before.
When they take the stage, these bands often get to belt out the songs they grew up adoring. But this is a business. So, deciding what to play isn’t all about what they love best.
The Bad Bad Ants lean toward covers of rock and pop hits, and Sovek and Barton write ballads when time permits. “Personally, that’s where I’d love for us to go—doing more of our own music,” Barton says. “But you’ve got to play songs everybody knows.”
Nebulous also favors covers. “There [are] a couple of songs I don’t care to play,” says Polliard, who works by day for a fire-safety company. “But if the other guys like it, I’m not gonna fight over one song or two songs.”
David Oleniacz, bass player and vocalist for Ferris Bueller’s Revenge, says it’s about making the crowd happy. The band’s fans want to dance, so this “ultimate ’80s party band” focuses on bouncy Reagan-era hits.
“We have played ‘Jessie’s Girl’ more than Rick Springfield,” Maudhuit deadpans. It seems to work: They have developed a loyal fan base that follows them from gig to gig.
Matassa would love to mix in a few vintage tunes, but he accepts that “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” pleases the audience. Occasionally, though, a seemingly sure-fire choice turns out ugly: “We tried ‘Ghostbusters,’” Oleniacz says, and the dance floor emptied as if “it [were] the parting of the Red Sea.”
Ferris Bueller’s Revenge: Will Invine, keyboards; Anne Hewitt, lead vocals; Shawn Maudhuit, lead vocals and guitar; Gary Matassa, drums; Tom Polisano, lead guitar; and Dave Oleniacz, bass.
“Now he needs to keep on rockin’—he just can’t stop.” —Foreigner
“We could easily say there’s just too much going on,” says Leya. “You get tired when you’re older.” When you work all day and then it’s time for rehearsal, as he points out, “you think, ‘I kinda wish I could just blow this off tonight.’ But then you go.”
And that’s when thrill of performing melts the weariness away. When they take the stage at a bar, says Leya, “it’s like being at a middle-school dance.” Says Barton, his band mate, “This kind of excitement: When do you have that anymore at this age? Very rarely.”
For the Ants, some of whom are Hampton High School alumni, a major highlight came in May when they were hired to play at the 25th class reunion, which was held at Station Square’s Hard Rock Café. For Ferris Bueller’s Revenge, the moment of magic was playing for more than 3,000 people at the Station Square Street Jams in 2008.
Bottom line: Playing music feels good. And many of these musicians say playing it as a side business, rather than as their primary job, lets them focus on the fun. “This is my stress-reliever,” Polliard says. “Once it becomes my stress-inducer, I’m out.”
He likens moonlighting as a musician to having a favorite hobby. Some Pittsburghers with full-time jobs like kayaking or fishing, Polliard says. “To be able to enjoy their hobby, they’ll plan their work schedules around it or plan a vacation where they’re going to go somewhere to go kayaking. … That’s really no different than what we’re doing.”
Except for, at times, the money. Ferris Bueller’s Revenge now earns enough to hire roadies.
On the other hand, not all bands are doing as well.
“This pays for day care,” says Hartman, a member of Corned Beef and Curry, referring to the band’s earnings.
Whether the money is big or small, there is a warmth and friendship within each of these bands that is palpable. Sit down with the Ferris guys, and you’ll hear them rip on each other mercilessly. But just as quickly, they will praise each others’ talent.
When Banerjee got the chance to tour the country with another band, McCann and Hartman were totally supportive. Back in 2002, Banerjee was unexpectedly invited to tour with the popular Celtic music band Gaelic Storm, which routinely has topped Billboard’s world-music chart. He and McCann opened for Gaelic Storm previously in 2002, and “they remembered [him], and when their violinist quit mid-tour, they called.” The timing was serendipitous: Banerjee had just been laid off from a technical training job.
“I was really torn,” he says. “My daughter was in high school at a very formative stage, and my wife is disabled. I thought, ‘How am I going travel?’ … My wife said I will never get another opportunity like this, so I should go. And my daughter said, ‘Dad, you’re old. Go do it now before you die.’”
There, buried in a teenage girl’s comment, is the crux of the matter.
Age is a curious thing in the business of rock ’n’ roll. Ferris Bueller’s Revenge is made of people who reveled in ’80s music when it was new and fresh and raw. But they have 21-year-old fans who are embracing it now for something both exciting and, for some of the band members, maybe even a little depressing: retro-cool.
A few of these performers are older than 50, though most are in their 30s or 40s. And yet, somehow they all come across as noticeably younger, maybe even cooler, than people those ages usually seem.
Perhaps it’s because they’ve embraced things such as parenthood and “real” jobs without shutting out the possibility of rocking hard on a Saturday night. Instead of choosing one of those two opposing American dreams—responsible job, home and family or rebellious rock-star existence—Pittsburgh’s “dad bands” are filling their lives with both.
Neil Young helped define a generation of musical behavior when he sang that it’s better to burn out than to fade away. These suburban bands are doing neither. Nevertheless, a question can’t help but hang over them: Will they still be rocking when they’re 55? What about 65?
“Hell, yes,” says the Ants’ Russ Sovek.
“But,” wonders Barton, “for whom?”
Melissa Rayworth writes about a mix of cultural issues—from sexual politics to popular culture to home design and parenting—for a variety of national news outlets, including The Associated Press, babble.com and salon.com. She met the Bad Bad Ants upon arriving in Pittsburgh three years ago, and they introduced her to the wild world of suburban rock bands.